Questions about God’s role in tragedies follow bridge collapse

By Maria Wiering
Catholic News Service

MINNEAPOLIS (CNS) — Weeks after the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, Minnesotans continued to cope with the disaster’s aftermath. There was the search for victims, the clearing of the rubble, the loss of a well-traveled Twin Cities route.

And there were questions about why this happened — questions that go deeper than explaining how the steel truss gave way.

“Where is God?” asked Paulist Father Robert O’Donnell at noon Mass the day after the Aug. 1 collapse. He was preaching at St. Lawrence-Newman, the closest Catholic parish to the bridge.

At the same time in St. Paul, Coadjutor Archbishop John C. Nienstedt led a prayer service at the cathedral. St. Olaf in Minneapolis likewise remembered victims during a special Mass.

God was not at fault for the disaster, Archbishop Nienstedt told those gathered. The collapse was the result of human causes.

“Yes, this has been a catastrophe of historic proportions,” he said. “But out of such a tragedy, there is something for all of us. We are humble enough to admit to our own limitations and surrender our lives unto God, who has loved us from the beginning.”

There’s a difference between “letting” something happen and “causing” it to happen, said University of St. Thomas philosophy professor Gregory Coulter. God didn’t cause the bridge collapse, but he did let it happen. And if God let something happen, he must have a reason for doing so — something good must come about from it.

“It is difficult for many of us, with our finite point of view, to conceive of goods achieved by the collapse of 35W,” he said. However, he added, the collapse has triggered a nationwide effort to study the stability and condition of the nation’s bridges, which might save more lives.

It might prompt efforts at improving our roadways and prevent more traffic deaths. Engineers might set out to create newer and better bridge designs. And people might be reminded how fragile life is.

Cognizant of their own approaching death and that of those around them, they might change their lives for the better and prepare their soul, Coulter said.

Father Michael Miller, pastor of St. Peter and St. Joseph in Delano, said “it is significant to note how many people turned to God in prayer for themselves or others.” Tragedy can cause a “deep innate realization of God’s existence” and remind humankind of its powerlessness, he said.

“God permits things like this collapse because God allows us to be agents,” Coulter added. “Our actions and efforts are real and make a difference in the world. That bridge was made by human hands. If God were to interfere with our actions whenever there were imperfections, we could do nothing for ourselves.”

Imposing a pat cause-and-effect explanation or theory for the bridge collapse is vanity for humankind, said Father Michael Byron, a professor at St. Paul Seminary. “It is precisely in the midst of bewildering pain that we turn to faith, not to explain away the mystery, but to sustain us through what our own best ingenuity can’t understand,” he said.

Minneapolis Fire Chief Jim Clack said that emergency situations strengthen his faith in God. Upon viewing the disaster for the first time, “I thought to myself that we would end up with many serious injuries and many deaths. The devastation was almost overwhelming to my senses,” he said.

“Now, in retrospect, I know that it is a modern-day miracle that so many walked and swam away from that scene,” added Clack, a deacon at St. Pius X Parish in Zimmerman in the Diocese of St. Cloud. Thirteen people died and 100 more were wounded in the bridge collapse.

“The miracles I have witnessed over my career in the fire service just make me realize more and more that God is with me, blessing me and watching over me as I stumble through life,” he said.

Linda Cherek, a grief therapist, said she believes that “God allows good and bad things to happen, and then his love, care, arms, eyes and hands are those of the ordinary person.”

Over time, tragedy can be a gift, she said, “like greater appreciation for family and loved ones, increased awareness of the beauty all around us in nature, friendships, the ability to trust and be loved by others.” Tragedy can lead people back to God’s plan for them to be authentic, trusting, caring and honest, she said.

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Contributing to this story was Joseph Young in St. Cloud.


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